Downward spiral

Collapsing public standards and how to restore them

By John Bowers

Downward spiral
Hardcover +
  • Price: £20.00
  • ISBN: 9781526167491
  • Publish Date: Apr 2024
  • Publisher: Manchester University Press
  • Buy Now

    eBook -
  • Price: £20.00
  • ISBN: 9781526167477
  • Publish Date: Apr 2024
  • Publisher: Manchester University Press
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    Book Information

    • Format: eBook
    • ISBN: 978-1-5261-6747-7
    • Published Date: April 2024


    The Johnson era will be remembered for a series of scandals that severely eroded trust in the British government. From questionable PPE tenders and public appointments to the 'partygate' fiasco, every aspect of public life seemed tainted. How did this downward spiral begin, and what can be done to reverse it?

    In this eye-opening book, veteran KC John Bowers presents a fearless examination of the decline in ethical standards before, during and after the Johnson government. He focuses on the institutions responsible for holding the government accountable, exposing how they have been bypassed by prime ministers determined to impose their agenda. Through interviews with political insiders, Bowers provides analysis of scandals such as partygate, Greensill and the revolving door with the private sector. He shines a light on a culture of favouritism, where standards are upheld based on little more than the assumption those in power can be trusted to behave.

    Rishi Sunak entered Number 10 on the promise of restoring integrity, but it is clear major problems remain. Confronting the failings of the current system, Downward spiral presents concrete proposals for creating an alternative that is more transparent and accountable.


    'With a forensic eye and an abundance of jaw-dropping detail, John Bowers paints a picture of the pit into which British public life sank during the age of Boris Johnson. But this is about more than the moral indecencies of one individual. Bowers makes a compelling case that it is the system itself that needs an overhaul, so that no future prime minister can trample on basic standards with such impunity.'
    Jonathan Freedland, Guardian columnist

    'A forensic, scathing dissection of the multiple weaknesses of our democratic order that successive Tory governments exploited shamelessly. This is a must-read and an indispensable manual for those who would reform a political system whose ethical foundations have fallen so low.'
    Will Hutton, author of How Good We Can Be

    'The eminent KC John Bowers believes that our constitutional architecture is no longer fit for purpose. Downward spiral is a devastating analysis of the breakdown of ethical standards in public life. He proposes wide-ranging reforms to restore trust in our institutions. This is a book that should be read by every concerned citizen.'
    Sir Vernon Bogdanor, Professor of Government, King's College London

    'This sadly much needed book tells a shocking tale of the undermining of parliament, the civil service, ethical codes and good governance. It also sets out an agenda for reinstating integrity and standards in public life. It should be a go-to text for anyone who cares about restoring government's ethical behaviour.'
    Baroness Hayter

    'With too many cheques and not enough balances in the system, it's time for a new ethical settlement. John Bowers identifies the depths to which our public standards have sunk and suggests a way forwards. Essential reading, especially for those in power or who aspire to power.'
    Baroness Royall

    'John Bowers has written a very timely book that exposes the damage being done to society by a ruling class that governs without recourse to standards in public life. Downward spiral is a wake-up call to all those who care about the future of a fair and accountable political system.'
    Robert Verkaik, author of Posh Boys: How English Public Schools Ruin Britain

    'John Bowers has written a measured, comprehensive and utterly devastating account of the Johnson government's degradation of British public life. Everyone who wishes to restore honour and integrity to the way we are governed should read this outstanding account of how we entered a spiral of decline - and how we can clamber out of it.'
    Sir Ivor Crewe, author of The Blunders of Our Governments

    'A fast-paced, hard-hitting and readable book about policing ethics in public life.'
    Marina Wheeler, The New Statesman

    'Bowers has written a compendious account of the incidents that eroded trust from 2019 to 2022, when Boris Johnson was prime minister - and they didn't end there. Though the author has interviewed a number of key figures, his book does not claim to be an insider's account: we recognise and immediately remember the scandals he records. But setting them out, page after page, reminds us of just how many breaches of trust there were. Bowers provides a sense of perspective that is hard to reach while events relentlessly unfold.'
    Joshua Rozenberg KC

    'Bowers focuses on practical solutions and this is what makes this book such a revelation - there are obvious means for how to fix the problems that have led to the breakdown in public trust in politics and Bowers presents them in a clear, concise, and uncomplicated way.'
    Will Barber-Taylor, The Social Review


    Part I: Setting the scene
    1 Introduction: falling standards (and masonry)
    2 A basic history of standards in public life
    3 Boris Johnson and the downward spiral
    Part II: The ethical regulators
    4 The Independent Adviser on Ministers' Interests: bullying, wallpaper, parties
    5 The public appointments system and Commissioner for Public Appointments: unmerited jobs and cultural cleansing?
    6 The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments: revolving doors and dogs with rubber teeth
    7 Appointments to the House of Lords: ermined disgraces
    8 Party funding and the Electoral Commission: how to get the party started
    9 The Committee on Standards in Public Life and National Audit Office: two success stories
    10 The Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists and the vast lobbying industry
    11 The Civil Service Commission: a few issues of decline and a few insidious features
    Part III: Cross-cutting issues
    12 MPs for hire: second jobs in the spotlight
    13 Anatomy of a recent scandal: PPE
    14 Greensill: 'no rules were broken'
    Part IV: Conclusion
    15 Conventions, the rule of law and declining standards: what happens when good chaps do not behave
    16 Conclusion: new timber to replace the rotten wood
    Appendix. Controversial public appointment cases (and two non-reappointment issues)


    John Bowers KC is Principal of Brasenose College, University of Oxford. He was called to the Bar in 1979 and took silk in 1998. Described as 'an employment law rock star', he is the author of fifteen books, including Bowers on Employment Law, The Law of Industrial Action and Trade Union Recognition and Whistleblowing. He is a former chair of Bar Disciplinary Summary Tribunals and a member of the Bar Council's Race Relations Committee. Since 2005 he has been a Bencher of Middle Temple.

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